Naked except for a bath towel

Paul Addison

  • Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence edited by Warren Kimball
    Princeton, 674 pp, £125.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 691 05649 8

The Second World War is no longer what it used to be. The populists of the New Right, aided and abetted by amateur historians of the mole-hunting variety, have been distorting it into a morality tale of the Cold War. Scholars may talk as they please, constructing complex patterns of interpretation for a minority audience: the popular ground has been won by the Chapman Pincher school of history, with its attendant band of novelists, journalists and politicians. The message they bear is a simple one: that the war against Hitler was merely a side-show in the truly decisive struggle of the 20th century – the battle between Freedom and Communism.

At times one might almost imagine that the war was actually fought, or ought to have been, against the Soviet Union. True, the appeasement of Hitler is recalled as a warning against the appeasement of Soviet aggression. But the new orthodoxy deletes from the record the embarrassing fact that appeasement itself arose in part from the inability to perceive any other enemy but Communism. The wartime alliance between Britain and the Soviet Union has come to be treated as a subject of scandal and concern, a shameful cover for the betrayal of the Poles and others by fellow-travellers at the heart of the British Establishment. What a crime for a great power to occupy a small nation and rule it along authoritarian lines! Yes, indeed, but for Soviet imperialism to stand out in its full iniquity, it is just as well to omit all reference to British or American imperialism – or, if pushed, to describe them as something else. How the Russians must chuckle when Fleet Street demands independence for Afghanistan. Don’t we all remember, comrades, the heroic struggles of the British Right on behalf of the colonial freedom fighters?

One of the choicest episodes in the rewriting of the past was the spectacle on the Normandy beaches last June, mounted on the pretext of commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day. What a triumph of ingenuity it was to transform a scene from the anti-Fascist war into a tableau vivant of the anti-Communist crusade. Especially in view of the fact that but for the Red Army’s achievement in pinning down the majority of German divisions on the Eastern Front, a successful invasion of Western Europe would have been impossible. But the D-Day celebrations revealed an intriguing gap in the mythology of the Cold War. It could hardly be concealed from the British viewing public that Ronald Reagan was walking tall on the Normandy beaches, looking very much as though he owned the film and television rights. This was not so appealing a sight, and a Presidential stroll along the White Cliffs of Dover would have been less appealing still. In constructing an anti-Soviet view of the past, Pincher and Co have failed to establish a pro-American one.

In British history agitations against Continental despotism have often touched off a profound response. The mentality goes back a long way, to the Protestant fear of an international Papist conspiracy. On the other hand, what alchemy of persuasion has ever had the effect of making the British love their allies? In the First World War the British authorities quarrelled vigorously with the French, and the attempts of publicists to sentimentalise the Entente Cordiale were a flop. In the Second World War the collapse of France in June 1940 was greeted with sighs of relief. Almost at a stroke, British hopes of salvation were transferred from the unreliable French to the mighty United States.

At this point in his life Churchill was, more than ever before, Jennie Jerome’s child, a strong, sincere, but rather frustrated pro-American. In his heart he never accepted that Britain and the United States were two foreign powers whose relations should be based upon separate calculations of national interest. He tried therefore to invest the alliance with an overriding racial, historical and ideological significance. He, more than anyone else in Britain, sought to popularise the doctrine of the special relationship. The two peoples, so the argument ran, had a common political heritage and tradition. They were the joint heirs of Magna Carta and the rule of the law, the custodians of the Glorious Revolution and parliamentary government, and the inheritors of a common English language and culture. Hence it was the manifest destiny of the British Empire and the United States to form a permanent association for the benefit of mankind. Churchill even went so far as to propose, in 1944, some form of common citizenship.

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